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One Step Closer to "One Country One System" - Hong Kong's Chief Executive Change

Beijing’s preference for Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive will likely further erode the freedoms that the city has already begun losing.

Cover Image for One Step Closer to "One Country One System" - Hong Kong's Chief Executive Change
A police officer holds up a banner warning protestors of possible infractions under the 2020 National Security Law Photo Credits: The New York Times
April 7, 2022

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive, has announced she will not seek another term in office in this year’s Chief Executive Election, scheduled for May 8. After presiding over an incredibly tumultuous time in Hong Kong’s history, her announcement has surprised few.

As Hong Kong’s leader since 2017, Lam has presided over the territory’s massive months-long pro-democracy protests in 2019, the implementation of the draconian 2020 National Security Law, and Hong Kong’s scattered handling of Covid-19. The latter recently saw Hong Kong have the world’s highest death rate per capita, despite widespread availability of Sinovac and Pfizer vaccines. While many in the city may welcome her decision to not seek another term, any celebrations could be short-lived.

The people of Hong Kong do not vote for the Chief Executive; Beijing all but appoints the territory’s next leader. Following Lam’s announcement, it has become clear that Beijing supports John Lee, a top hard-lined Hong Kong civil servant who played a significant role in quashing opposition since the protests began in 2019. Policies with his support have resulted in the arrest of more than 10,000 protestors and the closure of one of Hong Kong’s leading opposition newspapers, Apple Daily. If John Lee becomes the next Chief Executive, as many anticipate, Hong Kong will likely only slide further towards mainland China’s autocratic rule.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, is a Special Administrative Region in China and was guaranteed a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047 by the Chinese government when the British returned its sovereignty to Chinese rule in 1997. Under the “one country two systems” principle, Hong Kongers enjoy freedoms of speech and of the press, among others, that those living in the Chinese mainland do not. In recent years, however, the Chinese government has eroded those freedoms and brought Hong Kong closer to mainland control. Missing booksellers and crackdowns on protesters in the 2014 Umbrella Movement served as harbingers for what was to come.

The erosion of freedom of speech and press became especially apparent after the 2020 National Security Law was implemented. This law, which Beijing passed by circumventing the traditional Hong Kong legislative process, criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with foreign governments, all of which are now punishable by a maximum life sentence in prison. Further restrictions are exemplified on the University of Hong Kong’s campus, where two memorials of the Tiananmen Square massacre have been removed since December, erasing some of the last artifacts on Chinese territory commemorating the fateful event. If John Lee’s track record provides any indication of his legislative priorities, his tenure will see stricter “security” laws come to light and continued erasure of the territory’s liberties.

This places the democratic, constitutionally liberal freedoms that Hong Kongers have known for decades further at risk, as well as the territory’s status as a global financial hub and the gateway to the Chinese market. More broadly, it would serve as another example of the global backslide in democracy. The fighting spirit of the people of Hong Kong is sadly being deflated. The silence that blanketed Hong Kong’s streets in July 2020 was magnitudes more unnerving than the orchestra of protestors violently clashing with police officers months earlier.

While citizens of other democratic territories can ultimately vote to reverse democratic backsliding, the people of Hong Kong are resigned to the decisions of an increasingly autocratic Beijing. John Lee’s appointment would only be the next step in Hong Kong’s accelerated return to Chinese rule.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.